A US federal court has cleared five poultry industry executives, including two former CEOs of Pilgrim’s Pride, of price-fixing.

Retired Pilgrim’s Pride CEO Bill Lovette, his successor Jayson Penn, the company’s former sales executive, Roger Austin, plus Claxton Poultry executives Mikell Fries and Scott Brady, were acquitted by a jury in a Denver court on Thursday (7 July) over anti-trust charges brought by the US Department of Justice (DoJ) .

The case – US v. Penn et al – was based on DoJ allegations that the defendants fixed prices from 2012 to 2019 and comes after two previous mistrials and charges being dropped against another five defendants.

The original ten defendants were first indicted in October 2020 following a lengthy federal investigation.

Each defendant was charged with a single count of conspiracy to restrain trade, which carries a maximum sentence of ten years in prison.

The DoJ had accused the men of helping orchestrate a scheme among the nation’s largest poultry producers to fix prices for chicken sold to restaurant chains and grocery stores.

After the men were cleared, the DoJ said in a statement: “Although we are disappointed in the verdict, we will continue to vigorously enforce the antitrust laws, especially when it comes to price-fixing schemes that affect core staples.”

Greeley, Colorado-based Pilgrim’s pleaded guilty to price-fixing charges in 2021 and was sentenced to pay US$108m in fines while Tyson, the biggest US chicken producer, said in 2020 it was cooperating in the federal probe, taking advantage of a government policy to grant leniency to companies that are the first to disclose illegal price-fixing.

However, some US media outlets are suggesting the result of the latest trial is a setback for President Joe Biden’s administration’s attempts to tackle rising meat costs, which it blames on an industry that is concentrated in too few hands.